Reformed Baptist Fellowship

The Practical Implications of Calvinism (Part 2)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on October 19, 2010 at 7:30 am

The Power of Saving Religion

We now turn our attention to the specific soteriological aspects of Calvinism — the ‘doctrines of grace’. I have already said that the saving aspects of biblical truth, commonly called Calvinism, would be the focus of our attention — the confession that God saves sinners. What effect should that have upon the life of an individual? Is Calvinism, essentially in the realm of soteriology, a declaration of the saving mercy of God exercised sovereignly and powerfully upon elect sinners? If so, then at the very core of Calvinistic, biblical thinking regarding salvation is this belief that God has taken the initiative, that God has done something, that God is [present tense] doing something. Warfield has this to say: ‘There is nothing, therefore, against which Calvinism sets its face with more firmness than every form and degree of auto-soterism, every form of self-salvation. Above everything else it is determined to recognize God in his Son Jesus Christ acting through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent as our veritable Saviour.’

In the eyes of the Calvinist, sinful man stands in need, not of inducements or of assistance to save himself, but precisely of saving. He holds that Jesus Christ has come, not to advise, urge or woo, or to help a man to save himself but to save him, to save him through the prevalent working in him of the Holy Spirit. This is the root of the Calvinistic soteriology.

Now if that is so, that at the root of Calvinistic soteriology is the confession that God saves sinners, accompanied as it is by a refusal to bleed any of the full meaning out of any one of those words, it should lead in a very practical way to two things in the life of the individual.

I. First, it should lead to honest scriptural self-examination. I did not say unscriptural or neurotic introspection. And I believe that our fear of neurotic introspection has kept many of us in Reformed circles from honest, scriptural self-examination. By scriptural self-examination I mean a simple obedience to passages like 2 Corinthians 13:5,‘Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?’ I mean obedience to the exhortation of 2 Peter 1:10, ‘Give diligence to make your calling and election sure’. Similar words are found throughout the New Testament — ‘Let no man deceive himself; let no man deceive you; be not deceived’. I am speaking of that scriptural duty.

It is obvious how this fits in as an implication of the Calvinistic concept of salvation. Since Scripture declares that all who are truly saved are the workmanship of God [Eph2:10], then the question I must ask is, ‘Have I been the subject of that workmanship?’ The question is not the sincerity of my decision, or my resolve, or my whatever-I-want-to-call-it. The question is not, ‘What have I done with reference to Christ and his salvation?’ The essential question is this: ‘Has God done something in me?’ Not, ‘Have I accepted Christ?’ but, ‘Has Christ accepted me?’ The issue is not, ‘Have I found the Lord?’ but, ‘Has he found me?’

One of the old masters in Israel used to ask those who aspired to be admitted to the table of the Lord, or to church membership, two questions. Firstly, What has Christ done for you?’ He wanted to see if they understood the objective basis upon which God received sinners. He wanted to see if they understood that men are accepted before God on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ plus nothing. And if it was clear to him that they did not think in any way that they were accepted by virtue of their repentance, their tears, their works, but solely upon the merits of Christ, then he would ask them the second question: ‘What has Christ wrought in you?’ You know what he has done for you, now my question is, What has he wrought in you? He asked that question because he understood the terrible possibility that a person might have an intellectual grasp of what Christ has done for sinners, and yet be an utter stranger to his mighty work in sinners.

And so I want to press some questions home to everyone’s conscience. First: ‘Have you been brought to see your own corruption in sin in such a measure that the first two beatitudes are true of you?’ The only people in the world who are truly blessed are those who have been so wrought upon by the Spirit that they are not strangers to these two things: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’. How does God make men truly blessed, truly happy? First of all, he makes them sad at the sight and sense of their own impoverishment in a state of sin. What is poverty of spirit? Is it some kind of pseudo-pietistic attempt to convince myself that I am a miserable worm and a wretch? Not at all! Poverty of spirit results from just getting a sight of what you really are, and seeing that you are nothing and have nothing and can do nothing that can commend yourself to the grace and saving favour of God; it results from the conviction that he could make you an eternal monument of his righteous wrath, and let you perish in the eternal burning. Have you been brought to some experimental acquaintance with that? If not, I doubt whether you can claim that Christ is your Saviour, for he said that he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The poor in spirit have been made consciously aware of their depravity and sin.

It is possible to hold the doctrine of total depravity as a theological concept, and be as evil, proud and self-righteous as the devil. Have you known an inner stripping that has brought you to poverty of spirit? to holy mourning? to the recognition that your sin has been against the Sovereign God? Have you been brought to the place where you hate your sin enough to forsake it and cleave only to Christ? One old writer has beautifully said, ‘When the Holy Ghost begins the chord of grace in the life of a man, he always orients that chord to the bass note’. He begins with the bass note of conviction, a revelation of our need of the Saviour. Have I been brought to see that unless He initiates the work it will never be done?

The next question I would ask is this: ‘Do I evidence the fruit of his working?’ And what is positive, undeniable evidence that God has been and is working in me? I would say without any fear of contradiction in the light of Holy Scripture that the evidence is biblical holiness. The so-called Five Points of Calvinism are cast in a negative form and can in some ways be misleading. Nonetheless we cannot change the course of history, and so the Five Points have come down to us and we must learn to live with them. Take the last four points — unconditional election, particular redemption [Christ died to save specific people], the efficacious call of God and the preserving work of God in all whom he has called and joined to his Son: What is the focal point in all of these? The ultimate focal point, of course, is the display of the glory of God’s grace, as we read in Ephesians 1; but as the immediate focal point, how is that glory displayed? by what means? By the taking of totally depraved creatures and making them wholly men and women in whom the very likeness of God’s Son can be seen. What is the goal of election? Ephesians 1:4 tells us: ‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that’ . . . we should glory in our election? No! But ‘that we should be holy and without blemish before him’. Election unto holiness! What is the goal of the atoning work of Christ? Listen to the testimony of Titus 2:14: ‘Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people as his distinct possession, zealous of good works’. He died to have a holy people ‘zealous of good works’.

Then there is the efficacious call of God, ‘God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ [1 Cor 1:9]. ‘Called into a life of sharing vital realized communion with Christ!’ ‘For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness’ [1 Thess 4:7].

Again, there is the preservation and perseverance of the saints. It is a perseverance in the ways of holiness and obedience, for Scripture says, ‘Follow after holiness without which no man shall see the Lord’ [Heb 12:14]. ‘If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed, and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’ [John 8:31, 32]. And so wherever we touch any part of the structure of Calvinistic soteriology we touch a living fibre of God’s purpose to have a holy people.

Predestinated to what end? ‘Whom he foreknew he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son’ [Rom 8.29]. if so, then I must ask a question of myself: Is God’s electing purpose being realized in me? He chose me in Christ that, being purchased in time and called in time, I might begin to be holy in time, and have that work perfected in eternity. The only assurance I have that I was purchased to be holy, and will be perfected in holiness, is that I am pursuing holiness here and now. Essentially holiness is conformity to the revealed will of God in thought, word and deed, through the power of the Holy Spirit and through union with Jesus Christ. Holiness, godliness, this is the evidence that his electing purpose has come to life and fruition and it finds its expression in obedience. That is why John can say in 1 John 2:5, ‘Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected’. It finds its designed end in the one who keeps the Word of God. Is there clear evidence that I am experiencing communion with Jesus Christ through his Word? For he has called me into fellowship with himself, and if I have been effectually called then I am no stranger to experimental acquaintance with the Lord.

Do I confess that I am being preserved by God’s keeping power? Then his preserving must be coming to light in my persevering. The only proof I have that he preserves me is that by his grace, I am enabled to persevere.

This is the practical implication of Calvinistic soteriology. It makes me ask questions like these which bring me into the whole context of honest scriptural self-examination. John Bunyan was right on target when he wrote that section in his immortal Pilgrim’s Progress which describes how Christian and Faithful come into contact with a man named Talkative.2 I urge you to read it carefully. It shows that Bunyan recognized that there is such a thing as having an intellectual conviction that only God can save sinners, and that salvation is a work in which God saves sinners, but the real issue is this, Has there been an experimental application of that truth with power to my own heart and to my own life?

About a year ago, a young man, a Seminary graduate, came to me, to talk about some matters that were disturbing him about my own ministry. He asked me this question, ‘Mr Martin, I want to ask you a simple question. Do you believe that you have a calling to go round the country getting people upset?’ I answered: ‘My calling is not to go round the country getting people upset, but I am called to declare the whole counsel of God, one aspect of which focuses upon this principle, that it is possible to hold the form of sound words and yet to be lost and undone and a stranger to grace; for the Scripture says, “The kingdom of God is not in word but in power”. Paul said, “Our gospel came not in word only but in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance”. As long as Matthew 7:21-23 stands in Holy Scripture, and as long as I have a voice, I shall cry out to ministers and potential ministers and professing Christians that many will say in that day, “Lord, Lord”, to whom Christ will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you”.’

I would never want to be an unwitting instrument of the devil to unsettle the faith of a true child of God who may be like Bunyan’s Mr Ready-to-halt or Mr Fearing, or Mr Feeble-Mind, men who are on their way to the Celestial City but who have problems about assurance and who are doubting and failing. I would never be an accuser of the brethren to destroy or hurt the faith of a true Christian. But neither would I be a dumb dog, silent on the issue, that it is not enough to have inherited a form of doctrine, whether it be Calvinistic or Arminian. The issue is this: If salvation is of the Lord, has he begun a work in me? So I submit that these doctrines applied to the heart will lead to honest scriptural self-examination.

II. In the second place, these doctrines will lead to the sane biblical pursuit of practical godliness.

What is involved in such a pursuit? To be brief, three things:

1. A holy watchfulness and distrust of oneself. Do I really believe that by nature I am so undone that God must initiate the work, and that the remains of corruption in me, even after I have been regenerated and joined to Jesus Christ, are such that if God took his hand off me for a moment, they would lead me back into every form of wickedness possible to a human being? Such a belief will produce a holy watchfulness and a wholesome distrust of myself. If I recognize that the corruption that remains within me is like a dry tinderbox and that every temptation is like a live coal, I shall not dare to flirt with sin. If I have come out of perhaps a narrow fundamentalistic background with its checklist morality, and I discover the glorious truth of liberty in Christ, I shall not use my liberty as an opportunity for licence. I will recognize that I am free in Jesus Christ, and yet that I am one who has this terrible potential to wickedness within me, and I shall watch as well as pray.

2. A consistent prayerfulness. Is salvation the Lord’s work from beginning to end? Then he must help, and his help is given to those who cry out to him. He must work in me to will and to do of his good pleasure, and I must ask him to do it. The Word shows the beautiful fusion of those two things: God’s covenant promise to do something sovereignly and powerfully, joined with his command to his people to ask him for the very thing he has pledged to do. In Ezekiel 36, that expanded statement of the blessings of the new covenant, God makes great assertions [see verses 25 to 36] and yet in verse 37 we read: ‘Thus saith the Lord God; I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them’; ‘I will do it’; ‘I will be inquired of’. In the economy of grace God awakens in the heart of those to whom he would dispense them the desire for the blessings which sovereignly and powerfully he engages to dispense. Matthew Henry, in his simple, homely, quaint way, says, ‘When God deigns to bless his people he sets them a-praying for the blessing which he desires to give them’. And so, if I believe the confession that God saves sinners, that he not only regenerates them, bringing them to repentance and faith, but that he keeps them and ultimately brings them into his presence — if that is his work then it will produce a consistent prayerfulness, not only a holy watchfulness and distrust of myself, but a constant application to him that he would perform in me that which he has promised. For what is prayer in the last analysis? It is a conscious spreading out of my helplessness before God. The true Calvinist is the man who confesses with his lips that grace must not only awaken him, regenerate him, but that grace must preserve him, and he Amens his confession by his prayer when on his knees he cries out, ‘Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil. I cannot even get my bread for today, Lord, unless you sustain my life and bless the labours of my hands: Give me this day my daily bread’. The doctrine of confession, God saves sinners, will produce in the heart of a true Christian the sane biblical pursuit of godliness, holy watchfulness, a consistent prayerfulness, and in the third place:

3. A trustful dependence on God to fulfil all that he has purposed. When I sin, am I cast away? No! The word of God is, ‘A just man falleth seven times and riseth up again’ [Prov 24:16]. And so I come acknowledging that my obedience is neither the basis for my justification nor the ground of my approach to God as a sinner who has been besmeared by sin, and I flee afresh to the Mediator of the New Covenant. Peter puts the matter of recourse to the Lord in the present tense, ‘To whom coming . . .’ not ‘to whom ye came’. So often in our day we hear it said that ‘somebody came to Christ’. A Christian is a man who is ever coming. We read in Hebrews 12, ‘Ye are not come. . .’ and then he describes some of the physical surroundings that we get in the Old Covenant, but he says, ‘Ye are come to . . .’ and he mentions all the blessings of the New Covenant, and one of them is this: ‘Ye are come . . . to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant’. ‘If any man sin we have [present tense] an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.’

Is not this why a true Christian does not cringe at the exposure of his sin? Every exposure of sin in the life of a true believer drives him afresh to his Saviour, and anything that drives him afresh to his Saviour makes his Saviour more precious. When is your life more fragrant than when the kiss of forgiveness is most fresh upon your cheek? Sin felt and mourned over drives a Christian afresh to the Mediator of the New Covenant who knew all about his failures when he called him, and in his grace and mercy as a suffering High Priest ever pleads the merits of his blood before the Father. And so there is a trusting dependence upon God to fulfil all his purposes. When I am weak I need to remember that he prays for me. He said to Peter, ‘Satan hath desired to have thee to sift thee as wheat. But I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not. I did not pray that your courage fail not. Your courage will fail, Peter, but I have prayed that your faith fail not’. And even in Peter’s denial there was not a casting-off of his faith. For the work which God’s goodness began, the arm of his strength will complete. He will carry it on until the day of Jesus Christ.

For a person to claim to be a Calvinist, confessing the soteriological creed that God saves sinners, without this holy watchfulness, some measure of consistent prayerfulness, and a trusting dependence upon God in Christ to fulfil all that he, in grace, has promised, is a contradiction of terms. One of the great cries that is raised today, and some of it has justification, is that people, especially young men, who get hold of Calvinism, and seem to view it as an unanswerable, unassailable philosophical system, become proud, go back now to their secular schools and in ten minutes shoot holes in the views of their Professor of Philosophy. They become proud, cocky. That is a caricature, that is not real Calvinism.

What is the personal practical effect of the confession of Calvinism in the life of a man? If he sees God, it will break him, and if he understands that God saves sinners, it will make him a trustful, prayerful, watchful person pursuing practical godliness. Is that what these doctrines are doing for you right where you sit this morning? Some, perhaps, to whom these things are new have feared them and said, ‘Oh, that stuff will just lead to spiritual barrenness and dryness’. It is not so! For these are the truths of God’s Word; I am convinced they are. In their totality they are the truth which is according to godliness, the truth that sanctifies us in answer to the prayer of our great High Priest. May God grant that the truth will do that in you and in me!

By Albert N. Martin

Notes:

2. Pilgrim’s Progress, pp 81-95, Banner of Truth Trust.

  1. […] We now turn our attention to the specific soteriological aspects of Calvinism — the ‘doctrines of grace’. I have already said that the saving aspects of biblical truth, commonly called Calvinism, would be the focus of our attention — the confession that God saves sinners. What effect should that have upon the life of an individual? Is Calvinism, essentially in the realm of soteriology, a declaration of the saving merc … Read More […]

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